Book Review: Smarter Than You Think by Clive Thompson

Are our machines tools or extensions of our minds?

instax-2017-01-05 Smarter Than You Think: How Technology Is Changing Our Minds for the Better is positioned as a counter argument to the handwringing over the digital world. It’s journalistic report of how humans augmented by computing devices and digital networks become smarter and more capable. It’s time to recognize that the human memory supplemented by data stores, algorithmic machine intelligence, and instant global connectivity fundamentally change who we are.

Our minds have long been long been extended by the unique human technologies of speech and culture. While we begin with a strong subjective sensation that our minds are contained in our heads , constrained physically by our bodies and sitting right behind our eyes, several philosophers like Andy Clark and David Chalmers have proposed that the functions we call “mind” actually operate not only in the brain but also via objects in the physical world. Our memories are not limited to what we can pull out of long term memory, they are also preserved in the photos of our scrapbooks and the writing of our diaries. Acting as our thoughts, pen marks on paper can extend our thinking through time and space.

Thompson more or less catalogs the way computers augment our thinking, but interestingly includes how machines facilitate social interaction. If you’re willing to entertain the idea that the extended mind can include cultural and shared knowledge, then a deeply connected information society has created a very powerful engine for collaborative thought. Thompson starts off his section on blogging with a discussion of the very real phenomenon of writing as a way of thinking, of learning about the world by verbalizing it.

But once there’s an audience, one is no longer talking to oneself, but are in a relationship with others that changes how you go about writing, but also can provide the feedback that improves the value of the thoughts themselves. Certainly the fact that a couple of dozen people around the world regularly read ODB changes how I write, needing to be sure I provide enough quick background on these philosophical positions or at least links to help any new or occasional reader.

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